In a sense, Tim Scheld grew up at New York’s WCBS and, after some switches, made a happy return. And with the station in the midst of celebrating 50 years as an all-news radio outlet, Scheld, now Director of News and Programming, has observed a great deal of the station’s growth from inside and out.
Scheld joined the station in the late 1980s after an earlier stint as a street reporter for crosstown WOR. Bernie Gershon, who’d lured Scheld to WCBS, left in the mid-90s to run the news division at ABC Radio Network and took Scheld with him. Scheld was a network correspondent for ABC from 1994 to early 2003 when CBS came calling, asking him if he wanted to come home and be the station’s news director. In 2008, he earned his current title.
“NewsRadio 88,” as WCBS was known then, debuted on August 28, 1967, although that happened on sister station WCBS-FM, because a plane hit the AM antenna tower hours before they were to launch the new format.
Scheld spoke to Inside Radio about the early days of WCBS, the year-long celebration of a half-century as an all-news station in the nation’s largest radio market, how newsgathering and reporting techniques have changed over the years and where the next generation of radio newscasters will come from. An edited transcript follows.
“NewsRadio 880” WCBS has been in a year-long celebration of its 50th aniversary as an all-news station. How is the station marking the occasion?
It wasn’t anything more than us wanting to honor the legacy of the radio station, which has seen five decades of telling stories. This whole concept of storytelling is very thematic through the 50th anniversary. Every day, during this whole year, we are telling stories in honor of that legacy. We are doing a feature called Back Stories, where we used archive audio and went back to interview a lot of the veterans of the station to get them to give us some of their recollections. Every Wednesday we’re doing a small business spotlight in honor of the anniversary but it’s a modern-day story. So we’re having a year of storytelling because that’s what we do for a living.
The celebration included the recent “Night of Stories” event that featured, among others, Tony Bennett. What was the focus of the event?
Night of Stories was a stage show—it was radio before a live audience, although it wasn’t on the radio. It was to show people the beauty and the art of stories, and showing the audience that when you have good, smart conversation and stories it is a really fulfilling experience.
Tell us about the early days of the station and the initial switch to news programming.
The history of the all-news portion of WCBS came in the late 1960s. I wasn’t old enough to be focused in on radio news then; I had to learn it. When you come to work at a radio station like this, you learn the legacy real fast. It can be very intimidating for a young person.
The legacy of WCBS News Radio dates back to sort of a dream that William Paley had—maybe, less a dream and more of an order or mandate. In 1965, the city experienced a pretty significant blackout. The radio station at the time did a lot of entertainment, a lot of talk shows and things like that. When the blackout happened, the radio station had to jump into an all-news format to help serve the citizens of the New York area. It showed Paley and the rest of the CBS brass that we need to have this kind of service available to New Yorkers. That was 1965. It obviously couldn’t happen immediately, but…the blackout proved that this kind of a format is necessary.
The dream was to develop a local radio station in the model of the CBS of the [Edward R.] Murrow days…the Tiffany network. To have news broadcasters and reporters up to the standards of what CBS television and the radio network was at the time, which was the gold standard for news reporting. All the people they hired back in the day were tremendous personalities. On day one you had news anchors like Charles Osgood and Steve Porter. The sports director was Pat Summerall—the Hall of Fame kicker for the New York Giants. You also had Ed Bradley, one of the best of the interviewers on “60 Minutes,” and he was street reporter when WCBS NewsRadio 88 went on the air.
Can you highlight a couple of major events the station has covered over the past 50 years that had the greatest impact?
A remarkable event occurred on Aug. 7, 1974 and that was the city waking up to the story that [Philippe Petit] had erected a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers and was walking between Towers One and Two. It was something that traffic helicopter reporter Neil Bush spotted. It became this amazing aerial ballet that Neil told us for our 50th anniversary that actually made him queasy and sick to his stomach because he really thought he was going to fall. He watched it play out from the helicopter and reported on it. It was an amazing story. Philippe Petit walking between the Twin Towers 1100 feet above the city. It was crazy.
The man landing on the moon was an amazing story that was covered on radio and held people’s attention. It was a television story as well, obviously.
One of the things we looked at as we celebrate the anniversary was that it was not just how the reports sounded on the radio but it was how it made you feel. The shared experiences.
For example, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994 after a 54-year drought—the burst of emotion that flowed from the fans that gathered on the streets of the city for the ticker tape parade was a shared experience that radio allowed people to have that weren’t there.
A visit by Nelson Mandela to the city and his gathering at Yankee Stadium. Visits by multiple Pope’s—we had Pope John Paul II who said mass at Central Park, Pope Benedict said mass at Yankee Stadium and Pope Francis said mass at Madison Square Garden.
I’m leaving to the end the moments that were more tragic than celebratory. That is the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. We didn’t realize it at the time—I was street reporter at the radio station then and was there—was that we lost our innocence on that day. That was the day we realized that we were attacked by foreign enemies in our own city. We didn’t ever think it would happen to that extent and we certainly didn’t think that we would face a worse day than that. But 9/11 was probably the biggest impact that this radio station had in the market. It was definitely the biggest and most impactful day this radio station had serving the community of New York. The first broadcast report of the attack on the World Trade Center came from WCBS helicopter traffic reporter Tom Kaminski. He was somewhere around the George Washington Bridge in the middle of a traffic report and he was facing away from the Trade Center but they saw a flash. They turned around and they knew something terrible had happened. In the middle of the report you hear him say “something has happened.” That exchange is literally considered the first broadcast report of anything happening. When you see documentaries about 9/11 you’ll hear that audio. In the 9/11 Museum and Memorial those bits of audio from our radio station on that day are part of the exhibits on how the day was experienced by New Yorkers. It was a day that showed the importance of local radio. Radio played a vital role that day and brought a community together in the wake of tragedy. It was probably the most significant day in the history of this radio station.
1010 WINS and WCBS are both owned by CBS Radio and share the news format. How do the two stations differ when covering similar stories?
They’re both great radio stations. The beauty of the situation is that CBS lets us operate as individual and competing interests. While we don’t mind sharing the street or sharing space at a news conference with our sister station we still fiercely compete against each other on a daily basis trying to make sure that we have better stories and better ideas. We traditionally serve a broader audience. We stretch out into Fairfield County, Connecticut and into New Jersey and Long Island, while still maintaining a bureau at City Hall. I think they are a little bit more city-centric, although it’d be far off for me to talk about their programming strategies. They’re really good at what they do. The fact that we operate independently and individually despite the fact that we are one floor apart from each other is a fascinating thing. CBS has an embarrassment of riches and the two very best all-news radio stations in America are located here in one building.
Newsgathering and reporting techniques have changed quite a bit over the last half-century. How has that affected operations in the newsroom and at the station overall?
You have to attract people who are on the cutting-edge of technology. If you’re looking for a new reporter you want someone who is pretty fluid in social media, who can also shoot some video and is willing to go on Instagram and Twitter and communicate in places that we traditionally never even considered. When I was a reporter the cellphone was a brand new thing in the early ‘80s. We walked around with a cellphone that was as heavy as a brick. Now you have a device that you can hold in your hand that can record audio, take and post pictures, and take video. It’s amazing. It’s both a challenge and an amazing advantage to have all this new technology. But you’ve got to have a staff that embraces it. You have to show the people who have been here for 20 or 30 years the value of tweeting out information. It’s incumbent upon us to convince the younger generation of radio listeners that what we do is relevant and vital. Our ability to do interviews and give people more access to those interviews in more places, whether it be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube...we are at a very great place for a 50-year-old legacy radio station. We are a brand of news. We are not solely a radio station anymore. We are in a variety of places and that’s the exciting part. When we are gathering news we have so many avenues to deliver it and we need to be in the places where the listener is.
Where does up-and-coming news talent come from?
We see a lot of talent coming from internet radio. There are a lot of schools that don’t even have radio stations that are doing storytelling online and on social media. There really is no more farm system because there’s not many local radio stations involved in newsgathering, but it is exciting to see how many have young people doing digital audio and doing reporting on internet radio stations. Nobody is really studying to be a pure radio reporter anymore. They may be going to school to be a reporter and they may work for a radio brand but they are coming with skills to be able to tell those stories in a variety of ways. It’s an exciting time in the business. News has experienced a resurgence of interest because of all the political upheaval that took place in the presidential election in 2016. The debate over what’s real news and what’s fake news. News is on the front burner again.